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25 Nursing and the Word Before we go any further, let me remind you that I never wanted to be a nurse. When other ten-year-old girls were somberly taking each other’s pulses, playing at being nurses, I pretended that my Schwinn bike was a wild stallion. My imaginary cape flying, imaginary hoofbeats ringing out on the pavement, we galloped down Sylvandell Drive in Pittsburgh, always under the gray cloud of steel-mill smog that hung in the sky. When I was twelve, my father, a public relations writer, was transferred to New York City, and so we pulled up stakes, said good-bye to the smog, and moved to Stamford, Connecticut. I continued to ride my bike, but, alas, most of my new friends, like my old friends, thought about nothing but the day when they might become nurses. When we turned sixteen, many of my friends donned candy stripers’ uniforms and gave of themselves at Saint Joseph’s Hospital while I signed up for Saturday art classes at the local museum. After high school graduation, my candy striper friends debated the size, shape, and overall appeal of various nursing caps—their main criteria for choosing a nursing school—and I went off to Gettysburg College where I majored in art, joined the drama club, edited the literary magazine, and grew my hair down to the middle of my back. The thought of giving someone a bedpan or even a bed bath gave me the creeps. But life has a way of sending us where we never thought we’d go. Moveforwardseveralyears:I’mmarriedwithababydaughter,andmyhusband and I are barely meeting the monthly rent. His cousin, a nurse’s aide, suggests that I become a nurse’s aide too: on-the-job training—at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, of course—with flexible hours, uniforms provided, and, best of all, decent pay. Feeling somewhat up against the financial wall, I enrolled in the six-week course, got my blue uniform (eerily similar to a candy striper’s garb), bought white stockings and white Clinic shoes, and went to work four evenings a week from 6:00 to 11:30. When I returned at midnight, all was quiet—the baby in her crib, my husband snoring in our bed. My very first night on my very first shift, I was introduced to the world of nursing in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I walked into the elderly man’s room to take Davis text.indb 25 11/12/08 10:00:29 AM 26 the heart’s truth his vital signs and found him cold and dead in bed. Later that night, a patient’s husband called me an “angel of mercy,” and a woman told me how afraid she was, waiting for the results of her biopsy. While I changed her sheets and then walked with her in the hall, she wept. After, as I was tidying up, she caught my hand and told me how grateful she was for my care. The hospital, I quickly learned, was a different world, one where people suffered and died. In the hospital, there was an undercurrent of mystery, sensuality, spirituality—here, love and caring were primal, like the love between a mother and a child, with all that relationship’s fears, longings, difficulties, and joys. When I gave a worried patient a bed bath, my hands soothing her skin, I felt the same difficult-to-define selflessness that I felt caring for my baby girl. Little by little, I began to like my job. I began to understand that in the hospital, during all those intimate and critical moments between nurse and patient, the caregiver becomes the transparentgiver, and the patient becomes the very real receiver. Sick or recovering, a patient, like an infant, is helpless to do anything but exist in the moment. As a nurse’s aide, I found great joy and great peace in the smallest but most important interactions: offering a cold glass of water to a thirsty patient, holding a lonely old woman’s hand or listening to a man talk of his life, almost over. When I returned home at the end of my shift, everything was more precious. Everything reminded me that this other world—the suffering hospital—existed always, twenty-four hours a day. If I woke at 3 a.m., I knew that while I nursed my baby, somewhere a nurse’s aide might be feeding a patient, or a nurse...


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